THE skeptical social observer H. L. Mencken once quipped that ``no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.'' As proof of the enduring truth of Mencken's statement, consider the current success of Mike Judge and Howard Stern, two media stars who are soaring to new heights of wealth and fame as they dip to new lows in tastelessness.
For Mr. Judge, what started as a homemade animated film for a festival of ``sick and twisted'' cartoons has become the most popular show on MTV, ``Beavis and Butt-head.'' Never mind that his two moronic adolescents have a penchant for crude talk, animal torture, auto theft, and arson. And never mind that an Ohio mother has blamed the show for inspiring her five-year-old son to set a fire that killed his two-year-old sister.
The program's meteoric success is making it possible for Judge, who supplies the misfits' staccato heh-heh-heh laughs, to do his own heh-heh-heh all the way to the bank in Westchester County, N.Y., where he can now afford to live.
For Mr. Stern, what began as a controversial New York radio talk show has now been translated into an equally outrageous book, ``Private Parts.'' Even the dust jacket appears to stretch the boundaries of taste for Stern's publisher, Simon & Schuster. This week the book, filled with the same vulgarity that characterizes his radio program, sits at the top of the Publishers Weekly nonfiction bestseller list. And last week, thousands of fans crowded around a Fifth Avenue bookstore in New York, waiting for Stern to autograph copies.
Criticism of ``Beavis and Butt-head'' has increased in the wake of the Ohio tragedy. This week the Senate Commerce Committee is even including the program in its hearings on TV violence. Yet the mindless metal-heads retain a loyal following. David Letterman, for one, admires the show's humor for its ``consistency'' and for being ``so pure in its intent.''
Those who fail to appreciate that kind of humor run the risk of being labeled fogies and fuddy-duddies, hopelessly out of touch with the times.
MTV has announced that it is revising ``Beavis and Butt-head'' to delete all references to arson. But simply toning down the most outrageous lines and moving the program from its 7 p.m. slot to a later hour won't solve a larger problem - the seemingly insatiable public appetite for grossness and vulgarity. The desire to shock and offend shows up everywhere as media moguls challenge readers, viewers, and listeners to accept their lower standards - or get lost.
Anything to get a laugh. Anything to make a buck.
The nihilism that pervades Beavis and Butt-head's world and the obscenities that fill Howard Stern's airwaves are only the latest and most visible manifestations of alienation masquerading as an art form. Violence tends to be defined as physical brutality, perpetrated by guns, knives, and fists. But the disturbed thought that precedes any violent act may also have at least some of its roots in violent language. Who can separate vulgarity, with its anger, its absence of love, its lack of respect and even minimal courtesy, from violence?
Moral idiocy, however cleverly packaged, remains moral idiocy.
Skeptics who doubt the power of mass entertainment to influence behavior should consider the tragic cases earlier this week of three teenage boys who copied a daredevil stunt from a new movie, ``The Program.'' One teenager was killed and two others were critically injured when they followed the hero's example and lay down in the middle of busy highways.
In his introduction to ``The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories,'' to be published next month, former Secretary of Education William Bennett reaches all the way back to Plato for a warning to parents:
``Shall we just carelessly allow children to hear any casual tales which may be devised by casual persons, and to receive into their minds ideas for the most part the very opposite of those which we should wish them to have when they are grown up? We cannot.... Anything received into the mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable.''
These eloquent words attacking bad taste almost 2,500 years ago bear repeating in a sleazy age when Beavis, Butt-head, and Howard Stern might leave even Plato speechless.